Tell Me a Story: How Audiobooks Make Literature and Digital Inclusion Accessible for All
The push for digital equity includes an expansion of library audiobook collections.
As we celebrate National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA)’s Digital Inclusion Week 2023, let’s take a moment to reflect on the major impact audiobooks have had on creating equal opportunities for digital literacy as well as reinforcing the lifelong impact storytelling and aural comprehension has on our cognitive development.
The National Storytelling Network defines storytelling as “an ancient art form and a valuable form of human expression.” For many of us, our first introduction to reading and literature is aural comprehension — as a baby or a young child, a parent and/or guardian reads to us because we don’t have the ability to read on our own yet, but the need for the dynamic experience of having someone “tell us a story” doesn’t go away.
According to a recent report by the Audio Publishers Association (APA), more than half the US population eighteen and over has listened to an audiobook. Even more exciting is that 56 percent of audiobook listeners with children say their children also listen to audiobooks, and those geared specifically toward children had the fastest rate of growth (+41 percent) in 2022.
With growing concerns over screen time having negative effects on children’s cognitive development and screens being an inescapable part of many adults’ working lives (including the one you are reading this article on), audiobooks offer a measurable, pleasurable literary experience that can spark imagination and give tired eyes a much-needed rest.
Storytelling is also a universally shared important cultural experience worldwide, and companies such as OverDrive have created programs used by libraries nationwide to make audiobook borrowing free and accessible to all — as well as offering valuable, free opportunities for digital literacy. Librarians are not only the facilitators of information and resources, but many can also add the title of “tech coach” to their resumes.
A great example of audiobooks leading the way toward digital inclusion is AudioFile Magazine’s Sync, a yearly program launched in 2010 that partners with several major audiobook publishing houses to provide two free audiobook downloads for teens each week from the beginning of April until August 2. Sign-up for the program is easy; once the Sora app is downloaded, the free titles appear automatically on the main screen as they become available each week. These initiatives to get young people on board early with digital inclusion and literacy are paying off — APA reports that currently 57 percent of audiobook listeners are between the ages of eighteen and forty-four.
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Storytelling — whether it was my parents reading to me dramatically aloud at bedtime or listening to “books on tape,” as they were known in the late 80s/early 90s — has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. My father, Dr. William C. Ellis, is a retired folklore professor from Penn State, and when we would pack our small beige Honda station wagon with more stuff than we ever thought possible for our twice-yearly, eight-hour road trip down to Virginia to visit my grandmother, my dad would always make sure I had two things — the latest Calvin and Hobbes comic strip collection tucked in the backseat pocket and a brand-new cassette tape of folktales — many recorded by famed storyteller Laura Simms — to pop into my Walkman.
It is no wonder, then, that as I grew and my cassettes turned into CDs and CDs turned into MP3s, my love of hearing stories — particularly on the road — became a way of life. When my rising star journalistic career was cut short due to a round of layoffs at the magazine I was working for in Connecticut during the economic downturn in 2010, I was crushed. Writing has been the heartbeat of my life, and it was my dream to be a staff writer — someday an editor — of a nationwide magazine, and what seemed like my surefire paved road to success suddenly came to an end.
But as the unduplicated Fred Rogers once said, “Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” One of my old coworkers started working as an audiobook proofreader and editor at a local company in the nearby area, and she told me they were hiring for her position. “Well, I don’t know anything about proofing audiobooks,” I said to my friend. “Don’t worry about it; they’ll teach you — I know you’ll be great at it.” A digital inclusion/literacy opportunity that I never saw coming.
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Thus was the start of a path that was, perhaps, subconsciously forged for me long ago to turn my casual hobby/road trip companion into a professional career. With the rise of smartphones as a new way of life, I found myself on the cusp of a literary listening revolution. No more hauling around big CD booklets and having to change out discs every couple of chapters — just a few taps could have that story streaming into your ears in no time. Audible, first established in 1995, had reached its time to shine.
Over the past decade, my personal as well as professional relationship with audiobooks has opened me up to opportunities for digital as well as information literacy that I never thought possible — from expressing myself creatively through my audiobook reviews for AudioFile Magazine to behind-the-scenes cleanup work getting a project ready for production.
There is an entire village of dedicated creatives behind every quick tap of that play button — but one dedicated to upholding the universal, ancient art of storytelling and digital accessibility for all.
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